Mr Prime Minister, the nation wants to know!

BY ANUP KUMAR| IN Media Practice | 28/06/2016
Unlike his more adversarial interview with Jaitley the week before, Goswami mostly showed deference to the office of the prime minister.
ANUP KUMAR says clearly, no-go zones were agreed upon
Photo credit: Times Now

 

 

 

 

Arnab Goswami scooped his colleagues in the media, who just some weeks ago were taking pot shots at him for his nationalist stance on JNU and Ishrat Jahan controversies, by obtaining the first television interview with Prime Minister Narendra Modi since he was elected in 2014.

In spite of mediatization of politics at all levels, a television interview with the prime minister of India is still the rarest of occasions. Indian prime ministers are not known to sit for a one-to-one interview with a journalist, particularly on television. May be we expected that the first truly media savvy prime minister of India would be different. Yet, for more than two years every political journalist looking for this opportunity did not succeed, and mind you it was not because they did not try hard.

It is not a secret why the prime minister’s office would not have responded positively to requests from other prominent television journalists in the country. Although, it is fascinating that they did not go for the orchestrated theatre run by Rajat Sharma on India TV, but chose to go with Arnab Goswami.   

Goswami has built a reputation for being a precipitator of shouting matches on his nightly show Newshour on Times Now, but the readers of The Hoot who follow journalism practice closely would agree that Goswami is a tough and adversarial interviewer.

So did Arnab Goswami ask tough questions that sought explanations from Prime Minister Modi? Did he ask him to account for his government’s performance in the last two years on domestic and foreign affairs? Yes, and no. Yes, because Goswami touched almost all vexatious issues of governance in the first two years of this government. And no, because he stayed away from right-wing politics and issues of polarization.

He mostly showed deference to the office of the prime minister. Yet, he could have asked more follow-up questions when PM Modi did not give straight answers to questions of facts and rather preferred dwell on his philosophical outlook that we often see on Man Ki Baat. You will see what I am suggesting at, if  you also watched Goswami’s interview with Arun Jaitley, the number two person in the government, about a week before the interview with Modi was telecast. It will be clear from this first interview that Goswami was at relative liberty to put his pointed questions on political issues to Jaitley, and he was more adversarial with his follow-up questions. Looking back, the Jaitley interview now appears to have served as a foil for the interview with Modi.   

Now was this a deliberate choice? It looks like it was. We may never know, but it seems that Jaitley interview enabled this scoop by Goswami to become a possibility. I think the PMO must have put some conditions on which topics were no go zones. Journalists world over know access comes with its limitations, and you have to make an assessment of what serves public interest. The PM’s visible comfort level with the interviewer also suggests ground rules were agreed to.

Despite questions of journalistic professionalism raised many of Goswami’s peers, he has one thing going for him, which is trust of the largest segment of viewers in the country. We cannot ignore the fact that Times Now is the most viewed English-language news channel in India. His viewers see him as a nationalist, but they do not see him as closeted apparatchik of any political party, which cannot be said of many journalists these days. Media owners were always aligned with political parties in India, but political parallelism between individual journalists and political parties has been growing lately. The angle and framing of news stories can be predicted by reading merely the masthead of news organizations or the names of journalists writing them.  

It appears that the ground rules that Times Now and PMO may have agreed to in advance included a clause about no questions on any specific individuals. It is often the default position when heads of government give interviews. They are expected to not comment about individuals or particular cases because anything they say can influence investigations or give undue importance to a person seeking publicity.

However, Goswami did get to ask his question on Subramanian Swamy’s attack on Governor Raghuram Rajan without naming Swamy. The prime minister without naming Swamy or others sharply rebuked all who spoke out of turn and against the system for sake of publicity. Now it is to be seen if the message will be received by all those who have routinely embarrassed the government with their words and action.

Similarly, without naming the Congress party Modi put the blame for his government’s legislative failures on obstructionism practiced by Congress leadership. It seemed from the interview that he has given up on getting Congress on board and is  more intent on getting support from other opposition parties running governments in states that will get increased revenue from reforms such as GST. Now if the government succeeds in getting GST through Rajya Sabha with the help of rest of the opposition it should be of concern to the Congress, as this may fast track investigations of the scams during the UPA regime. It was interesting to learn from the interview that PM Modi was thinking of a really long innings. In a response to one of the questions he alluded to 2040 as the end-year!  

On one occasion during the interview when Goswami even implicitly tried to raise attempts by some BJP members to polarize communities with the upcoming Uttar Pradesh election in mind, the prime minister made it clear that he did not want to be distracted from his vikas plank, and also asked the media to avoid making heroes of these fringe elements. To Goswami’s credit, he defended the media and said to the PM that the media does not make heroes, but villains out of them. The fact is that even if media does not give these fringe elements publicity it does not guarantee that these people will desist from their nefarious activities. Media’s blocking of the fringe elements can only be a limited solution, the solution will come in form of rebuke from the highest leadership of political parties.           

During much of the interview Goswami asked about economy, farmers’ plight, and relations with Pakistan, China and the U.S. On economy, jobs and drought Modi talked at length about the plans his government has put in place. On Pakistan, Modi gave, diplomatically speaking, a smart answer by drawing a wedge between elected Nawaz Sharif’s government and other actors. It seems he did not want to blame Sharif for the lack of progress. He even suggested that desire of his government to engage with the elected government of Pakistan has changed how international community looks at India.

On the failure to secure NSG membership Modi played down the defeat and suggested it was a process that is independent of which party is in government, although Modi did argue that because his government had a clear majority it gave him more leverage in foreign capitals.

Does this interview open the doors for more interviews or press conference in future? It is pretty clear that PM Modi does not want to be put in a situation where in an open news conference he is put on the spot with questions about Gujarat 2002. For many journalists the Gujarat SIT report is still not the end of the matter.

During the 2014 election campaign Modi first tested the waters by giving his first interview to Rajat Sharma on India TV, which was then followed by interviews with Times Now and Doordarshan. We may see more interviews, but it is less likely that PM Modi will hold an open news conference with journalists anytime soon.

 

Anup Kumar teaches in the School of Communication at Cleveland State University

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